Remembering a beloved designer who
taught young local restaurateurs to create
settings that reflect their cuisine
—and to have fun in the process
By Jordan Champagne
Photography by Lisa Eisner and Patrice Ward
Known for his gift for spotting and creatively repurposing salvaged materials, Big Sur artist Erik Seniska designed the interiors of Big Sur Bakery, Happy Girl Kitchen and Carmel Belle. A beloved and larger-than-life personality with a spirit much younger than his 59 years, Seniska died of cancer on Nov. 2, even as his many friends were planning a celebration of his life and work at The INDY in Sand City. In this piece, Happy Girl Kitchen’s Jordan Champagne looks back on her friendship with him.
When we first signed the lease for what would become Happy Girl Kitchen’s Pacific Grove café, I had no clue how we were going to design the space. Our talents lay in recipes and working with the local harvest, not in putting together a restaurant. At the time, I was living in Big Sur, and a friend at the Big Sur Bakery said, “I have just the guy for you. He’s amazingly talented and loves good food.” That sounded perfect to me, since I had always enjoyed the aesthetics of the Bakery. But when the time came to meet him, I was a little nervous. I was familiar with his work and just thought of him as amazingly hip. I walked up to the building which would soon be our café and saw him looking through the window into the bare space. His appearance immediately made a strong impression. He wore work pants that were smeared and splattered with a vivid array of paints. He wore an extra-large straw hat and held a leather tool kit with the words “The Eye” etched into it. He was even hipper than I had imagined.
He spoke with authority, and within moments, it became apparent that he was in fact the designer for us. But even so, I had no idea that he was going to become one of my closest friends and hugely impact how I see the world.
A view from Fish Fry.
Born to New Yorker parents in Clearwater, Fla., Erik Seniska lived for a time in Boston and Brooklyn. He studied graphic design and took jobs that would later inform his interior and landscape design, like growing plants for nurseries and doing freelance display design. Eventually, he moved to San Francisco to pursue his design career on the West Coast. Erik’s own term for his profession, which he wrote in a profile in the 2009 Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, was “freelance bohemian.”
Erik was extremely skilled at decorative painting techniques—particularly a textured style done with specially notched tools called comb painting.
He quickly blew away design firms in the city. Soon, a company from the Monterey Bay area saw his work and hired him to design the interior of a house that was being built in Big Sur. He fell in love with the landscape.
The Big Sur project that would become the perfect platform from which Erik’s style could shine—and that would ultimately lure him into moving down—was Fish Fry, a tiny, rat-infested, hand-built redwood cabin from the 1940s. Perched high on a ridge over Garrapata State Beach on a 560-acre estate that Erik was hired to help redesign, the cabin was for a year both his home and a guesthouse design project over which he was given complete artistic license.
“I have always used garbage and repurposed it for artwork,” he told me in a conversation recently, so the raw, gutted cabin and the pile of galvanized metal, wood and other salvaged materials left waiting for him next to it were an inspiration.
The cabin ended up being a stunning work of art, with every square inch intentionally designed by Erik. It was during his work on this project that he found the Big Sur Bakery.
“I discovered them because they had the best coffee. Being from New York, Iwas such a snob about coffee. On Sunday I would grab The New York Times and head down for coffee and breakfast and spend the day down there,” he recalled.
Co-owner Mike Gilson has his own memory of their first meeting.
“There was a line out the door and I was the only person working the coffee bar—and wearing a white T-shirt. From the back of the line I heard this guy say, ‘Oh, honey, that blouse is filthy and must be changed!’”
Erik had a way of making inappropriate comments loudly in public that made you laugh and remember him.
The bakery was one of Erik’s first commissions to transform a public space, and to gather material for it. Gilson recalls, “Erik would walk the beaches and find pieces of wood and seaweed and hunks of things, rusted out metal and pieces of boats, and he would hang them on the wall and say: ‘It’s all about color, arranging and cruising.’ Erik said we should look beyond the finish of found objects to see their line and function—be creative and go for a big impact with simple things.”
Erik’s holiday installations were a highlight of his work at Big Sur Bakery.
He would gather giant leaves in Sycamore Canyon just down the road, bunch them tightly and hang them from the ceiling. For Thanksgiving dinner he would cover the entire floor with sycamore leaves to create the effect that autumn winds had just blown them in.
“Every restaurant should have its personality stamped on the inside. It has to be an entire environment that ties in with the food,” he said, describing his philosophy. But the interiors of all three restaurants he would design in the region—the Bakery, Carmel Belle and Happy Girl Kitchen—share a sustainable feel to match their seriously sustainable food. They also exude a sense of whimsy.
At Belle, Erik helped design a modern yet cozy atmosphere that reflects the restaurant’s extremely high-quality yet informal food. For the walls, he used chicken wire and various renditions of the restaurant’s signature hen; for seating, he saw past the bad textiles and peeling paint of some booths he found at a salvage yard and used fabulous new fabric to inject color and comfort among the stylish steel chairs.
At Happy Girl Kitchen, Erik wanted to create a general-store-meets-the-farm feel, and everything he did added to the farm-fresh experience. He mounted old wooden produce boxes from Van Dyke Ranch on the walls to hold books and used vintage ladders fitted with salvaged wood shelves to display our pickles and jams. He constructed counters in the board-and-batten style of old farmhouses and topped them with chopping blocks.
Erik’s final design for the local food community was a “parklet” that sits in front of Happy Girl. It’s a place to make the most of Pacific Grove’s elusive sun and relax at café tables amid drought-resistant plants in an area once occupied by curbside parking.
It took many trips to the salvage yard to construct it, as we wanted to create the feeling that this tiny park had been there for a long time, with wood that was worn to a cozy patina. The bold color and patchwork nature of Erik’s design have been jarring for some, and embraced as a work of public art by others.
Erik Seniska was the real thing—a living, working, breathing artist. He had the “eye” to see the true potential in materials—including those that nobody else wanted. He was extremely talented and alarmingly honest, and he showed me how to see the world in such a different way. Erik was an inspiration to truly live each moment to the fullest, in complete abandon. He has left his personality permanently stamped on everyone who had the great fortune of knowing him, and our community has been brightened by the creations he left behind.
Jordan Champagne is co-owner and founder of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. She has a passion for preserving the local, organic harvest and loves sharing her secrets at the workshops she teaches across the region.